At age eleven, I read Distant Waves, a book about a single mother who pretends to be a medium. One day, her family meets Nikola Tesla (please, suspend your disbelief), and sparks fly between eldest daughter Jane and Tesla’s assistant, Thad. Then, the family boards the Titanic, where Jane and Thad share an electric first kiss on the deck of the boat. I still remember how it felt to read those lines, marveling at the delight of loving someone and knowing they love me back.
Years later, even though I thought I’d abandoned my Titanic fantasy, I found myself on Hinge. A predictable series of events led me back to this sunken place. A friend had gone on a surprisingly good date, and, in a Bridget Jones-style take-it-upon-myself-to-change-my-life moment, I scurried to the App Store. The girl on my Hinge profile is the version of myself I like best: she has both friends and hobbies, is very serious about her career and politics, and still knows how to have a good time. But, in her endless pursuit of The One, she also rejects and cringes at others’ profiles with a shallowness I wish I could conceal. He’s too moderate. His sister is hotter than him. He’s in banking.
This is what I hate most about dating apps: swipe after swipe, they force me to confront the impossibility of the romantic fantasies I’ve been fed since childhood. I’ve retired my favorite daydream—I am in a bookstore; I bump into someone; they are clutching my favorite novel; the rest is history—because this kind of stumbled-upon romance strikes me as childish. On these apps, we are cold and algorithmic, made to sacrifice everything we’ve been told to classify as romantic—passion, spontaneity, curiosity—in exchange for the looming possibility of finding a life partner.
Now I watch Hannah (Emma Stone) of Crazy Stupid Love make out with the emotionally unavailable but charming Jacob (Ryan Gosling), and cringe, unable to see past the oxytocin coursing through their veins, a resource that will inevitably run dry. When I read Jane Eyre, I no longer swoon at the line “reader, I married him” but feel suffocated by Jane’s over-romanticized fate, made to spend eternity doting on her (formerly) emotionally abusive spouse. “I am a free human being with an independent will,” she declares, and yet she still chooses the most entrapping, socially acceptable fate.
I will be the first to admit that I’ve never been in capital-L Love, so I’m at a loss for empirical evidence. But as I’ve grown to recognize Love as something you seek out rather than something that happens to you, as something biological and psychological rather than intangible and intractable, this experience has become even more shrouded in confusion.
So why do we love? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says love tricks us into having babies; we love only to continue the species. Ancient humans developed an ability to become attached to one another because it prevented them from being mauled alive. The Buddha adopted a similarly pessimistic view. To him, love only satisfies our basest desires, motivating an addiction to another person that will cause suffering. In other words, attachment spells tragedy.
And what is love, anyway? Romantic love and relationships are the subject of 60% of songs in the modern era; it is, we are reminded at Thanksgiving dinner, the most important part of life. Yet our concept of romantic relationships in the Western world—monogamous and enduring—only arose in the early 19th century alongside the birth of industrialization. With less time devoted to labor came a greater emphasis on individualism, and in turn, intimacy. For most of human history, people didn’t marry, and when they did, it was almost always the arrangement of two families as a means of controlling the inheritance of property rather than the choice of two individuals. Then steamboats and machinery meant that one’s economic future was not quite so dependent on family inheritance, and this newfound financial freedom cross-pollinated with Enlightenment ideas about individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. Et voilà: romance.
This is not to say love in a general sense did not exist before industrialization—the ancient Greeks understood love not as exclusively platonic or romantic, but by the strength and style of the bond. The term philia refers to that mutual affection between friends, whereas eros might be understood as intimate, sensual love. Yet agape overrides both; it is the willingness to lay down one’s life for another. Since classical antiquity, humans have continued probing words and symbols to capture the uncapturable. In Tamil, a language spoken predominantly in India, there are over 50 words that mean love. Here are a few: uruku (melting inside due to love), aruḷ (love as grace), uvakai (love in happiness). They aren’t just being gratuitous. Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, found there were at least 14 different kinds of love after analyzing just 50 languages. And in Japan, love is not expressed verbally so much as it is seen in acts of service—whether making meals or performing favors. Love, like anything else, falls into the chasm between signifier and signified, making it easy to point out yet impossible to describe—asking someone who’s in love to define it is like asking a fish to describe the water in which it’s swimming. Romantic love becomes sacred, floating above the mundane rituals of everyday life, preferable to other relationships that take on a more casual, sustainable quality.
And so even though you love your friends, you love ice cream, you love moments of stillness and those of noise, you are made to feel like something is missing. Yet if history has taught us anything, it’s that romantic love is anything but inherent—the sense that you are incomplete without a partner is largely the product of Hollywood and ad agencies. While marriage was once strategized for the enrichment of individual families, it is now used to line the pockets of businessmen who understand that romance will incentivize consumers to pay for movie tickets or a diamond ring. Don Draper, the director of a fictional advertising firm in Mad Men, put it like this: “What you call love was invented by a guy like me to sell nylons.”
While the first Valentine’s Day card dates back to 1415 (when the Duke of Orléans sent a card to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London), they did not gain traction until the early 1900s with the rise of mass production. Happily ever after is an easy sell, but it’s certainly not void of problematic connotations. Commercialized love tells us that the truest form of romance is heterosexual and monogamous, consequently deligitimizing all the different ways we love.
In turn, the media’s representation of love neglects an uncomfortable truth: love is often unsexy drudgery, and it cannot be sustained without self-discipline.
As a child I remember wondering if my parents were in capital-L Love. Yes, they cooked together. They laughed together. They spoke with the comfort and patience of old friends. But they no longer seemed possessed by the giddy romantic mania I watched and read about—the desire to be together all the time, to be consumed by one another. And what is love without infatuation?
Growing up I came to discern the idiosyncratic love produced by the daily drudgery of my parents’ marriage: my dad, plowing our snow-covered road before dawn so my mom could make it safely to the hospital. My mom, dressing up as Dracula’s bride to match my dad’s Dracula (his hero). After my dad died, my mom marked his cans of Reddi-Wip “do not touch,” receding into a fortress of white comforters, and I wondered if Plato had been right. Perhaps the gods had split two-headed humans in half, condemning us to wander the earth in search of our complementary part. Perhaps my mom had found hers only to lose him all over again.
Still, I know that their love was the result not of an instantaneous chemical reaction but of decades of arguing and candlelit dinners and silent treatments and inside jokes. And I know that their relationship was not The Love™ but a love, a reminder that love might never be defined because every couple is constantly redefining it.
“Love has to be reinvented,” said poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1873, and perhaps that’s finally happening. In the age of swiping right and ghosting, of Zoom dates and walks in the park, of compatibility algorithms in favor of love at first sight, we are learning to get to know each other slowly, to build a foundation of trust before falling head over heels. We are doing away with fantasies that tell us that love that isn’t passionate and all-consuming isn’t love at all.
I still intend to lock lips with Nikola Tesla’s assistant on the deck of the Titanic. But for now I am postponing romance to pursue unconditional, sustainable love—in whatever form it may come.
By Audrey Pettit
Photo by Heather Glazzard for Vice